Saturday, 16 November 2013

Christmas: a season of opportunity

In December of 1994, a few days before Christmas, shoppers were shocked and children were terrified on the streets of the New South Wales country town of Lismore. People from a church - not one of the mainstream churches in this case, but one of the narrow sects - staged a realistic-looking mock assassination of Santa Claus. Shoppers in the central business district thought they saw a man in a Santa suit being gunned down by a man who shouted “Freeze, Santa. You’ve ripped me off for the last time. You’re a fake.”
This happened 43 years after a similar event in France in 1951, this time (unfortunately) involving a mainstream Christian church. The priests of Dijon Cathedral burned an effigy of Peré Nöel, the French version of Father Christmas, during the week before Christmas. The effigy of Peré Nöel was burned as a “usurper and a heretic”.
Personally, I find these incidents very disturbing. (And I believe that they say a great deal about the emotional health of the people responsible for the incidents, far more than the incidents say about anything else.)
As I said in an earlier article, there is much happening at this season within the wider community that we find very frustrating. There is also a lot happening that we can celebrate:
  • The same carols we sing in church are played over the loudspeakers of supermarkets and shopping malls.
  • The same lessons we read in church are read at Carols by Candlelight events sponsored by local government bodies.
  • Nativity scenes are seen in all sorts of non-churchy settings.
  • There is a general sense of generosity, hospitality, tolerance, and goodwill in the air, reflecting (if incompletely) the extravagant generosity of God whose self-giving we celebrate at this season.
For the Christian church, Christmas is a season of opportunity. Rather than being overly aggressive toward the broader community, I believe the church needs to build bridges with our community at this time. 
One year, at the Hobart Carols by Candlelight, I was given a great example of what not to do.  A young man handed me a pamphlet. The pamphlet was headed: 
“Why glory to the new-born King? 
What did he ever do for us?”      

Under the heading , it continued:
This is not a sweet this-time-of-year flier
or anything like that,
I just want you to think about this, be honest:
Why on earth are you singing these songs?
Is it because you’re a Christian and are praising God?
Is it because it makes you feel nice?
Or just an excuse for a drink?
Is it because the kids enjoy a bit of a sing-along
and it seemed like a good thing for all the family?
Well, these songs are here because it’s Christmas,
But what is Christmas?
From there, the pamphlet continued as a evangelistic tract. For me, the single most striking – and most arrogant - thing about this pamphlet was the way it discounted the serious possibility that a person receiving it may actually have a consciously Christian spirituality: “Why on earth are you singing these songs? ... Is it because it makes you feel nice? ... or just an excuse for a drink?” I’m not sure which church produced the pamphlet. It didn’t say. The wording of the pamphlet led me to believe that it was one of the “fringe” sects, and not a mainstream church. 
But that doesn’t matter, anyway. It’s not only the extreme sects who discount our neighbours’ spirituality. In mainstream churches, it’s also too easy to mock those whose churchgoing is confined to times such as:
  • Christmas or Easter;
  • baptisms, weddings, or funerals.

Christmas is a time when Christian churches have a season of opportunity in terms of relating to our wider community, but we rarely grasp the opportunity. I want to make two very practical suggestions for how the church can treat this time as the season of opportunity that it is:

1. Cut down on the disapproval.
2. Cut down on the casual.
1. Cut down on the disapproval.
This is a hard thing to say in some church settings Many people, both inside the churches and outside the churches, think of the churches in terms of the things that the various denominations are against. You know the drill, it goes something like this:
  • One denomination is against drinking and gambling;
  • Another denomination is against gambling but doesn’t mind if you have a drink;
  • A third denomination is not only against gambling and drinking, but it’s also against dancing, wearing make-up, and doing anything on Sunday that isn’t specifically “religious”;
  • A fourth denomination doesn’t worry too much about drinking or gambling, but it is against a lot of other things, usually involving bioethics;
  • Meanwhile, some people joke about more "liberal" churches like the Anglican and Uniting Churches, because we’re not really against anything, … except the things that everyone is supposed to be against, things like violence, bigotry, and greed, … you know, all the stuff Jesus was against.
Nevertheless, many Christians – even in the Anglican and Uniting Churches - have learned to be very disapproving of the ways in which the rest of our community enjoys themselves. We’ve learned how to finger-waggle, how to tut-tut, and how to give the disapproving look. It’s one of the most effective ways that so many congregations have found to almost empty our churches of young people, of working-class people, and of men.
A big first step in terms of the church treating this time of year as a season of opportunity is to cut down on the disapproval. (This is also good advice for many church people at other times of year as well, but Christmas is an excellent time to start.)
2. Cut down on the casual.
I’m speaking here as the first adult in my family to be a regular churchgoer for three generations. I broke a proud family tradition of people who sent their kids to Sunday School but didn’t attend church themselves, other than on special occasions.  From this vantage point, growing up among people who didn’t go to church a lot, let me say that people who don’t go to church a lot find casual worship very hard to take. Some church people enjoy casual worship, but most people who don’t attend church a lot look at casual worship and wonder what it’s all for. 
I’ve heard other clergy speculate whether overly casual worship – or overly gimmicky worship - is more about outreach to the unchurched or entertainment for the overchurched. Personally, I believe it’s all really about entertainment for the overchurched.
People who don’t go to church a lot get their casual in many other places:
  • They get their casual at home - a lot more naturally than when the church tries to “do” casual.
  • They get their casual from the TV - a lot more naturally than when the church tries to “do” casual.
  • They get their casual watching sport - a lot more naturally than when the church tries to “do” casual.
  • They get their casual at the pub - a lot more naturally than when the church tries to “do” casual.
People who don’t go to church a lot - on those special occasions when they do, such as weddings, baptisms, funerals, Easter, and (of course) Christmas – when they go to church, they look to the church to worship God:
  • with a bit of style and flair,
  • with a bit of dignity and solemnity,
  • with a bit of awe and wonder,
  • with a bit of mystery and transcendence.
They can get their casual elsewhere, at places that “do” casual much more naturally – and with much more integrity - than churches “do” casual. People who don’t go to church a lot look to the church for something different. 
At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the Saviour. We celebrate the Word made flesh. We celebrate God in our midst. The awe, the wonder, the mystery of this event is good news that many of our neighbours want to hear and receive. At any time, but particularly at Christmas, cut down on the casual.


Christmas is a season of opportunity for the Christian church, a time when the church has much in its favour in relating to its wider community. If we want to grasp this opportunity, let’s begin by remembering these two things:

1. Cut down on the disapproval.
2. Cut down on the casual.

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.

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